Just one day ago, I saw a tweet on author Louise O’Neill’s twitter feed which began with the heart-sinkingly familiar passive voice announcement I have been asked… It was a fulsome apology in legal language – most decidedly NOT her prose style! – concerning one solitary retweet she made several months ago containing potentially defamatory allegations against another Irish citizen.
(Edit – the tweet containing the apology text was deleted from her timeline after 24 hours, to the disproportionate rage of a suspiciously recently-created twitter troll, who roared abuse at Louise and several others via that medium. Hmmm. )
It is disturbing that the party to whom O’Neill apologised rushed off to comment jubilantly on her action on their own social media. Issuing a solicitor’s letter to correct the record in the face of false accusations is completely understandable. Exulting in an apology that sounds forced against the giver’s will, for a relatively minor issue, and crowing about it being from a “feminist author” – as was done – is less so. And it is more disturbing still that O’Neill, an author indeed with strong feminist influences and outspoken about violence against women, was called to apologise first above and beyond everyone else even though her engagement was very limited. Other figures in the literary scene also retweeted far saltier tweets about the individual and the allegations. They are not challenged. Could it be that getting the young feminist novelist to climb down, to humiliate her, is that much more satisfying?
I really worry when Irish authors are coerced in this fashion, even for ostensibly fair reasons. I understand the need to clear one’s good name, but the problem with Irish defamation law is that we have allowed the threat of legal action to take the place of actual legal action (a recourse that is everyone’s right) The author’s role to provide due social commentary that really stings is in danger of being made a mockery of. We already have a serious chilling effect in our public discourse (cf Pantigate) which has leaked out from its original boundaries of defamatory speech.
The problem about any discussions of this nature, apart from the sensitive legalities and avoiding repeating false and damaging information, is that there can be no proper exegesis of their content if the context and culture of Irish society is left out. Too often what we are discussing, or sanctioning, is not guilt or innocence, but the dynamics of power, of privilege vs none, and of censorship – all issues that we historically have had to grapple with. We not only have a defamation law, we have a defamation culture.
I don’t endorse calumny of anyone’s good character. Quietly undoing the retweet and making a donation to a charity of the complainant’s choice might not be an unreasonable thing to ask in this case. But this apology and crowing over it does not sit right with me, this whole thing. Louise, for what it is worth, I am sorry you’ve had to experience this.